"Poignant memoir of a not-so-typical New York Jewish family’s experiences in the midcentury Hollywood demimonde … Equal parts emotional tissue-party and shrewd cultural history." - Kirkus Reviews
In 1958, young Sheila Weller was living a charmed life with her family in Beverly Hills. Her father was a brilliant brain surgeon. Her mother was a movie-magazine writer whose brother owned Hollywood's most dazzling nightclub, Ciro's. Then her world exploded after she witnessed her uncle's brutal attempt to kill her father.
In Dancing at Ciro's, Weller has written a deeply felt memoir of her family's life contrasted with those most glamorous days of Hollywood's forties and fifties. While vividly describing Lana Turner's, Frank Sinatra's, and Sammy Davis Jr.'s evenings--and breakdowns--at Ciro's, Weller casts a keen eye on her own family's turmoil and loss.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Sheila Weller is the author of acclaimed family memoir Dancing at Ciro’s and the widely praised 2008 New York Times bestseller Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation. Her latest book was 2014’s The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour—and the Triumph of Women in TV News. Her investigative, human interest, and cultural history journalism has won her multiple major magazine awards. She has contributed numerous major stories to Vanity Fair, was the recent longtime senior contributing editor of Glamour, former contributing editor of New York, and has written for The New York Times Book Review, Elle, Marie Claire, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and The Washington Post.
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Dancing at Ciro's
A Family's Love, Loss, and Scandal on the Sunset Strip
By Sheila Weller
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Sheila Weller
All rights reserved.
NEW YORK: 1887–1918
Though my mother and father would not cross paths until they moved to Hollywood as young adults, they grew up a mile from each other in and near Brownsville and East New York. The neighborhood was a launching pad from which the sons and daughters (American-born, unaccented, regular Yankee Doodle Dandies) of immigrants from the shtetls and ghettos of Europe were expected to shoot like rockets from the shoulders of their peddler, tailor, and shopkeeper fathers and pierce the professional stratosphere.
My mother's parents, the Zlotchovers, law student–turned businessman Isidore and his artistic wife Celia, both from Austria, were more prosperous than many. When Isidore left insurance for the field he eventually prospered in — real estate — the family purchased a lovely Georgian house on Arlington Avenue in the elite, near-pastoral Brooklyn neighborhood called Highland Park. They moved their brood in: Shirley (born in 1903), Herman (in 1905), my mother, Helen (in 1911), and Leonard (in 1913). The house's parlor was walled in floor-to-ceiling mirrors, installed during the room's former life as a ballroom, giving the family area a theatrical cast. Celia and Isidore rented its upstairs apartment to local clergyman Rabbi Sachs. The Hovers moved there in 1916. Woodrow Wilson was president. The Great War was under way. My mother was five.
I am named for Shirley Hover. Shirley, Sheila, and our mutual Hebrew name, Shelka: the three shhh sounds, so rich in appeasement, warning, and secrecy, neatly lined up. Shirley is the only name by which I ever heard mention of my mother's sister when I was young, yet in the last ten years of my mother's and uncle's lives — when, aswim in the soupy timelessness of old age, they would banter about events that had occurred seventy-five years earlier — I'd hear them call her Sadie, the name they'd called her by when they were all children. She had been "Shirley" in their dealings with the assimilated world, the aspired-to world, but Sadie was her ethnic name, her "home name." When, in their twilight years, long after the uniquely simultaneous failure of both of their marriages, my uncle and mother spoke of "Sadie," I heard the name as a poignant marker for the integrity of their original family — a symbol of the innocent, original Brooklyn selves they had so imperfectly grown beyond.
My mother worshipped her older sister. They even looked alike, with their father's relatively light coloring and sharply peaked eyebrows, like upside-down Vs, set unusually high over their sleepy, sloe eyes. (Herman and Leonard — square jawed, swarthy, with eyes like wet, black olives — resembled their mother.) On Friday night, Helen would study Sadie standing at the head of the table, next to their mother, swirling and swirling her open-fingered hands in front of her tightly closed eyes, reciting prayers over the candles. Soon enough my mother would benignly reject those Jewish rituals that Sadie's earnest Shabbas incantation embodied, yet she never lost her superstitious nature, and I think those memories of Sadie's prayers were her soul's collateral: a keepsake faith, stored in an imaginary drawer in the heart for Helen's emergency use.
On Saturday night, the mirrored parlor would fill with boys in newsboy caps and knee-banded trousers and girls in middy blouses over petticoated skirts. From her upstairs bedroom, Helen would thrill to the catchy sounds of "Hindustan" issuing tinnily from the megaphone speaker of the talking machine, directing the clip! clip! clip! of a dozen young feet.
Celia, an emotional and domineering woman, used her self-appointed role as the family's seamstress to control her progeny. She was always sitting at her magisterial sewing machine. Her insistence on making nearly all her daughters' garments was a corraling gesture by which she literally took the measure of her brood. With eight-years-older Sadie, Helen could break free.
Sadie took Helen on after-school forays to procure exotic items — a corset with waist stays, filmy envelope chemises, shiny, grooved, orchestra recordings of fox-trot tunes. At the pharmacy Sadie bought violet talcum, which she later dabbed on her little sister when she stepped out of the claw-footed bathtub. Helen was very self-conscious about a light streak of pigmentation that zigzagged down one leg from thigh to knee. (As a result of her shame at exposing it, she never learned to swim.) Celia had wrung her hands and taken Helen to doctors while her mother, Rose, who lived with the family, bewailed the birthmark as an ill omen by the Dybbuk. Sadie made Celia and Rose leave Helen alone; she swabbed her sister's stain with concealing lotion, then combed the tangles out of Helen's wet hair. The yanking was a small price to pay for closeness.
In retrospect, I can see so many vestiges of Sadie in my mother's life. It was Sadie who taught my mother to read music. The budding star in the family, Sadie was taking piano lessons with Edward Morris at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music; she seemed on her way to becoming a concert artist. Dignified and feminine (in contrast to her impatient, aggressive younger sister), the young teenage Sadie would sit on the piano stool, playing Mendelssohn, Grieg, and Chopin for one hour each morning before school and two hours again at night. Then Sadie would reset the metronome for her sister. As it ticked, she'd place her hands over Helen's smaller ones, whispering, "Andante," "Rondo," "Pianissimo."
All her life, my mother's moments at the piano seemed regenerative and transporting. Leaning her whole body over those keys, attacking the sweeping chords of Gershwin and Brahms, and even Gilbert and Sullivan, she'd become another person — stately, meditative, almost somber. That change in her used to puzzle me, but now I understand. She was channeling her sister.
It would be popular, not classical, music that would set the Zlotchovers' future course. Isidore sang popular songs — "straight from the heart, beating time with his hands," my uncle Herman recalled in his unpublished memoir. "'Any Little Girl That's a Nice Little Girl Is the Right Little Girl for Me,' 'I Tore Up Your Picture When You Said Good-bye but I Put It All Together Again,' and 'Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy's Chowder?' He would finish them with an 'Off to Buffalo' shuffle, his face agleam as he stuck out his hand like a typical vaudevillian."
Vaudeville had sprung up in the 1890s and was in its heydey during the late nineteen-teens. It was a form of popular theatrical revue consisting of eight to fourteen carefully integrated "turns," often featuring acrobats and animals as well as dancers, singers, comics, and musicians. Vaudeville's reigning impressario was Benjamin Franklin Keith, who owned three theaters in Brooklyn alone: the Orpheum, Bushwick, and Prospect. The most popular acts appeared on B. F. Keith's stages: the Avon Comedy Four, Julian Eltinge, Blackstone the Magician, and such soon-to-be stars as child actress Helen Hayes and the teenaged Jimmy Durante. Salami sandwiches tucked in their pockets, Sadie, Herman, Helen, and Lenny — fourteen, twelve, six, and four — would stream down the Orpheum's aisles for the Saturday "Four-a-Day." After the last act of the first show (an intentional dud called "playing to the haircuts," because it caused people to turn and leave), the kids clambered down from the mezzanine. "We watched the second show," continues Herman's remembrance, "smack up against the orchestra pit." To his siblings, these afternoons were amusement, but to Herman they were a summons to his true vocation. He was expected to embrace the legal profession his father had spurned, yet he had fallen madly in love with the musical theater.
"No one could understand how fascinated I was with vaudeville," my uncle wrote. He'd memorize the dance steps and, once home, face the parlor mirror for hours, perfecting his heel-and-toe alternation, his cane-and hat-handling. Then came floor back bends and acrobatics. "I trained myself to stand on my head and swing by my knees from a trapeze. I juggled apples, oranges, rolled-up sox, knives, and forks, until I could juggle four objects at once." At night he'd place his "lucky" tap shoes — worn at the sides, ribbons frayed, heavy as barbells — by his bedroom door, far from the window so the cold wouldn't crack them.
Herman often shared his routines with the family, inviting their participation. My mother remembered that he would perform the trademark "waltz clog" of the elegant Pat Rooney, the Fred Astaire of his day, while she, Sadie, and Lenny sang "She's the Daughter of Rosie O'Grady." These were among her happiest moments. During these collaborations, the idea of the family as an entertainment-producing community took root in her heart.
While Herman was laboring to become an entertainer, the rest of the Zlotchover family underwent a more subtle transformation that more firmly staked their claim on the New World. On my mother's seventh birthday — January 10, 1918 — in front of the justice of the Kings County Supreme Court, Isidore stood, "praying," as the court papers put it, "for leave to change his name from that of Isidore Zlotchover to Isidore Hover." The request was granted. The family felt exonerated from their "Hun" name, cleansed of its unpronounceability, liberated from their thick ethnicity. With this move, they shed the remnants of their immigrant status. Now they were a wholly American family.
On the heels of this good feeling came unsettling events. Spanish influenza had begun rolling down the Eastern seaboard after having been carried ashore by returning soldiers. The disease could be low-grade, or it could be quickly lethal, often by way of its side effect — pneumonia. It was this latter strain that had caused Army Surgeon General Victor Vaughan to note, of one fort, "Every bed is full yet others crowd in. In the morning the dead bodies are stacked about the morgue like cordwood." It was this strain that hit New York in the late summer of 1918.
Thousands of people fell ill and died around the city during September. Along with lists of local boys killed or missing in action, the newspapers published daily front-page articles about the rapacious advance of Spanish influenza. The city's health commissioner, Dr. Royal Copeland, attempted to stave off panic with frequent announcements that the epidemic had crested. He issued daily edicts and advisories such as: suggesting that women wear veils to shield themselves against the bacteria; threatening to close movie theaters whose owners disobeyed the new sanitation codes; and conducting a "war against spitting" by taking offenders to court.
Even though influenza cases took a sharp jump in the city on October 4, the health commissioner decreed that the situation had not yet reached the point where schools, churches, and theaters had to be shuttered. Any adult could voluntarily refrain from attending a movie palace or house of worship, but children had to go to school. They were the epidemic's captives.
On the afternoon of October 7, 1918, Sadie came home from school sick. She took to her bed. The family physician was summoned. He, Celia, and Isidore entered Sadie's bedroom — and stayed there. My mother, seven years old, went to bed in her room, across the hall from Sadie's. It was hard to sleep, she recalled, with her parents talking so emotionally and light from Sadie's room beaming across the landing. At intervals she opened her eyes and the light was still there — a stern yellow shaft, aggressively spilling under the door and creeping out over Helen's floor.
Herman, six years older, was much more aware of the nature of the crisis. "I had been sent to bed but I could see through the open door of my bedroom three specialists in the parlor," he wrote in his memoir. "They were talking in whispers. Mama walked in. A breeze blew in through the open window. It felt as though there was somebody in the room I couldn't see. I fell asleep but soon awakened. The breath in my sister's chest sounded as if it was choking her. Then there was subdued sobbing."
Herman knew Sadie was dead. He went to Helen's room, woke her, and told her. They fell upon each other and cried, their grief and incomprehension forging a bond that would never be broken.
That early tragedy informed my mother's life. The sudden loss of the nourishing intimacy she had with Sadie would leave her with a hunger for a continuation of that truncated relationship — a hunger she couldn't fill through my father but tried to fill through me, and I through her. It was a hunger that led her periodically to announce, out of the blue (as if the thought seized her very being), with the hard-sell brio of a toastmaster but also with a stinging sadness, "There is nothing like a sister!"
The overnight death of her sister left its handprint on my mother's heart in another way, too: in the form of a terror of middle-distant light. For the rest of her life — when she was twenty-five, thirty-five, fifty, sixty, seventy, when she was eighty-one years old — my mother would walk around her house, turning off lights. When I'd come home from college and, later, when I'd visit from New York, I would walk into the house — and the only illumination would be the police-interrogation-harsh cone of light from my mother's gooseneck office lamp. Under it, hunched over her Selectric, she (now, in her dotage, a senior L.A. stringer for the National Enquirer) would be pecking out a story, that orb of brightness in the grotto-dark room backlighting her preposterously, like a gold-leaf halo behind the Virgin Mary. Defiantly, I would flick on the lights. She would rise and turn them off again.
Lights across halls were too freighted for my mother to bear — too mocking. It had shocked her to the core that light — world- renewing light — had been the very thing to augur and usher in death. The connection of Sadie's death to light may have also announced a grimmer irony. In the Hovers' elegiac shedding of the frightened shtetl world for a life of assimilation, opportunity, gaiety, and even glamour, this light was the hand that yanked the trespasser back. To my mother, light was like a semaphore, a warning — and an accurate one, borne out by the events of the rest of her life — that sorrow slunk behind the most euphoric times, that life was fraught with treachery.
For me, as well — a girl in L.A., the great-granddaughter of that shtetl world — jarringly persistent light would also feel sadistic, four decades later. This time it wasn't lamplight under doors but sunlight through windows, asking: If your life is so blessed, then why are you so anxious? Then why is there such illness, rejection, and tragedy around you?
* * *
Around the same time that my mother was experiencing the seminal event that triggered her melancholy, two blocks south and eight déclassé avenues west of where the Hovers lived, on the tumbledown corner of Bradford Street and Blake Avenue, my father was undergoing the defining experience of his young life: the rheumatic fever he contracted at age nine. He'd had a twin brother who died at birth, so his whole family already regarded him, the youngest child, as the fragile, chosen survivor, worthy of special indulgence, even before he fell ill with the infection that damaged his heart.
When my father talked to me of the symptom-by-symptom advent of his rheumatic fever, he always imbued it with suspense, like an unfolding drama. He spoke of how the skin on his arms, legs, back, and stomach had itched as if he had been bitten by a hundred mosquitoes. Then came the joint aches, as if some invisible culprit had wrenched his elbows and fingers and knees with pliers. During a game of horseshoe tossing on Bradford Street, he had picked up the metal U, but the act of closing his fingers around it proved so excruciating that he dropped it. Amid razzes from the other boys, he collapsed on the stoop, fighting back tears, stiffening his throbbing arms and legs like a tin man.
The most frightening development occurred that evening. His mother, Lena, had drawn a hot bath and left him alone to soak in it. His heart had pounded, seemingly out of control. He had covered his ears to muffle the pounding sound, but, of course, that had only increased the sensation. Loath to call out for his mother, he stepped out of the bath, shrouded himself in the cheesecloth tub curtains, and flopped onto his brother Milton's bed, not waking until the next morning.
Excerpted from Dancing at Ciro's by Sheila Weller. Copyright © 2003 Sheila Weller. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Beverly Hills: January 8, 1958,
Chapter One: New York: 1887–1918,
Chapter Two: New York: 1919–1932,
Chapter Three: New York: 1932–1936,
Chapter Four: New York and California: 1935–1939,
Chapter Five: Hollywood: 1939–1941,
Chapter Six: Hollywood, New York, Boston, Hollywood: 1941–1943,
Chapter Seven: Hollywood, Boston, New York Hollywood: 1942–1945,
Chapter Eight: Hollywood and Beverly Hills: 1946–1951,
Chapter Nine: Hollywood and Beverly Hills: 1948–1952,
Chapter Ten: Beverly Hills and Hollywood: 1952–1955,
Chapter Eleven: Beverly Hills and Hollywood: 1955–1958,
Chapter Twelve: Beverly Hills: 1958–1959,
Chapter Thirteen: Beverly Hills; The High Seas; Great Neck, New York: 1959–1962,
Also by Sheila Weller,
Praise for Dancing at Ciro's,